Analysis: Southern Weekly ‘deal’ fails to address the real issues
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Analysis: Southern Weekly ‘deal’ fails to address the real issues

The embattled Chinese newspaper is back on the shelves, but many doubt if the events of the past week will make any real difference to media restrictions in China, writes Rita Alvarez Tudela 

After some days of battle on the front line, the most recent edition of Southern Weekly, one of China’s most liberal newspapers, came out Thursday. This latest edition came thanks to an agreement signed between the publication’s management and Chinese government officials.

The deal implies that officials from the province of Guangzhou, where the publication has its headquarters, will no longer directly interfere in the content of Southern Weekly before publication, and that the journalists and editors who took action will not be punished or removed from their positions.

This is difficult to believe, especially when you consider that yesterday’s edition of the publication made no mention of the events of the past week. Considering the hard control and censorship that the media and journalists suffer in China in general it seems unlikely that one week of strikes would win complete freedom for any editorial team, and reports on Thursday suggested that editorial staff at the newspaper are still deeply unhappy with the situation.

The article that sparked the protests was a New Year’s editorial that originally was calling for political reform in China as Xi Jinping steps in as president of the country in March, taking the seat from Hu Jintao. Before publication, the article was transformed into one acclaiming the work of the Communist Party without any criticisms. This was the proverbial straw that broke the camel’s back. Southern Weekly editorial staff said the propaganda chief of Guangdong, Tuo Zhen, was interfering greatly in the work of the publication by radically changing articles without notice.

The end of the conflict garnered much attention on Chinese social networks Weibo and thanks to the support given by many journalists, professors and celebrities. Searching of the name of the publication in Chinese “Nanfang Zhoumo” online is still blocked as well as the accounts of some of the journalists who signed a petition asking for the dismissal of Tuo.

But this quick agreement to control the situation may also imply the end of the flame that started online asking for more freedom of speech, freedom of press and less control from the Central Propaganda Department on the work of Chinese media professionals.

As of yet, the protests and support from citizens in the street have not been quashed by police, as has happened in previous protests. And the Communist government has given a gesture towards compromise, but China maintains its place at the top of the list for the highest incarceration rates for journalists, bloggers and cyber-dissidents, according to the most recent report published by Reporters without Borders, that says that 30 journalists are currently prisoners in China.

“The dispute should stand as a landmark for Chinese journalists going forward, proving that they have a platform to express their frustration with restrictive censorship measures. But it’s also common for officials in China to cave in to demonstrators’ demands for change as a quick means to resolving embarrassing public disputes,” says Madeline Earp, a Asia senior research associate at the Committee to Protect Journalists based in NYC.

This is not the first time that the liberal Southern Weekly has suffered from a confrontation with the Communist Government. In 2009, there was another conflict between the publication and the government. At that time, the editor, after an interview with US president Barack Obama, decided to publish the article with white holes in the text to mark where the censors had deleted.

Political science researcher at the Guangdong province Social Sciences Academy, Peng Peng, says: “To put it simply, the media cannot go beyond the existing system to pursue radical reform, but the management method also needs to change.”